Female couple sit together with their son in their home and all smile for the camera

Rules to Engagement: Relationships Built on Respect and Relevance

Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA;  Additional contribution by AnneLouise O’Brien, Social Worker and Evaluator, Mecklenburg County CDSA

Here at the Mecklenburg County CDSA, we are fortunate to have a system in place that allows us to get together on a monthly basis, as a whole agency, to learn about different aspects of our work and how we all fit into it together.  Sometimes, these Communication Meetings are about policies and procedures (like the IDEA 2004 update implementation process – yikes!).  Other times, we just pick a topic and invite folks to come and share what they know.  Recently, we had some visitors who shared some impactful information about serving families within the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) community.  Yep, that’s a lot all in one place, and it was an intense hour of information that really had us all thinking about how we engage with families in general, as well as how we need to be sensitive to every family’s dynamics.  Heather Vandall-Henson and Xavier Marts were quite the dynamic duo, and my mind was churning over the common themes that we highlight throughout the blog here at EI Excellence.

As early interventionists, we need a lot of information from families for a variety of reasons.  What do you know about early intervention?  Tell me about why you were referred for Infant-Toddler Program services.  How does your child’s development affect this, that, and the other routines during your day?  Who are the people involved in your child’s life?  How will you know when this outcome has been met?  The list goes on and on, but they all have a purpose.  All of them are relevant.  So, does the sexual orientation of the parents or caregivers change what that looks like?  I’m not sure, it depends on what I need to know that is relevant in that moment.  For example, if I’m gathering some medical background information, I will probably want to know who carried that child to see if there were any complications or points to note that might add to his story.  I can’t make assumptions about that, so I’ll need to ask.  If I’m in a visit with a family, and the child has something she needs to give to a parent, I’m probably going to ask what she calls each one so I can use the same words to keep from confusing her.  If there are multiple adults in the room, it would be helpful to know how they’re all connected to the child – another moment when I can’t make an assumption.  Here’s the thing – these scenarios apply to every family because I don’t know them, regardless of their dynamics, and I am just starting to build that relationship.  How do I know if it’s relevant?  If I can’t explain my intentions related to development and implementation of the IFSP, I probably don’t need to ask about it.

Thinking about asking relevant questions brings me to the next theme – respect.  This kept coming up throughout the presentation, and for good reason!  It can feel awkward when we’re in a new situation, trying to ask questions without sounding offensive or nosy.  I have found that being transparent can take you pretty far as you navigate through your conversations with families.  To me, though, showing respect means approaching a conversation from an objective point of view and truly being able to take in information for what it is, not for what I think it should be.  For the umpteenth time, I’m taking us back to Your “Stuff” as an Early Interventionist – What’s Your Take?  We all have different views on any given topic, and LGBTQIA matters certainly generate a lot of conversation.  Is it my job to go in with my “stuff” in tow that could potentially impact my relationship with the family?  Nope.  Is it my job to change how I am supporting families based on whether their family dynamics are similar to my own?  Not even a little bit.  It is, however, my job to get to know each family and how their child relates to them in order to provide the most functional supports.  Heather said something powerful that, to me, extends way beyond early intervention – you don’t have to accept something to be respectful.  Wow – how often do we feel like we’re defending ourselves against the opinions of the rest of the world, and how great do we feel when we are accepted and respected, differences and all?  As early interventionists, we’re working with families so their children can be part of everyday life experiences and integrated into every part of the community possible, both inside and outside of the home.  We’re also specifically looking for strengths that help with that entire process, and we have to leave our “stuff” outside so we can find them.

One of the most powerful ways we can learn about supporting families is to hear from families themselves.  I got to have a great conversation with AnneLouise O’Brien, Social Worker and Evaluator here at the Mecklenburg County CDSA, after this presentation – check out her reflection on it all….


I was happy to hear Heather bring up one important point during the presentation in that a parent will often offer information about their unique family structure before you even ask.  For me, I am proud, and often eager, to share information about my family.  If you are an inquiring mind, I will answer (most) any question.  I understand that some people are curious about different aspects of my family, and more often than not, it’s coming from a positive place of respectful curiosity. (Some call it nosy, I like to call it inquisitive)  I feel that any opportunity to give someone insight into how we operate may help normalize it for them and see that we are like any other loving parents of a sassy, spoiled toddler.  When deciding to start a family, I was initially concerned that my family would be looked at or treated differently by some, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I often forget that we are the only “two-mom” family at our daycare, and I am so thankful for this reality, mostly for my daughter’s sake.  She knows “mommy” and “momma” are her parents, and the three of us together are a “family.”  Families who feel they are different than the “norm” want to assimilate, not stand out.  These families have the same parenting experiences and challenges as others, and often do not want the focus to be on their differences, but on their similarities.  As we know in early intervention, no two families are alike, and that is what most of us love about our work.  Every day, we have new opportunities to learn about a different kind of family and build our toolbox of strategies to support them where they are.  


Amazing, right?  One of the most impactful statements made during this presentation was the fact that we’re never completely competent when it comes to diversity….or anything related to supporting families, for that matter.  Take a minute and think about that for a second.  Look at how far we’ve come with evidence-based practices, but yet we have so much more to learn?  Family dynamics and their individual cultures will never stop evolving, no matter how often we check our “stuff,” so we have to keep finding ways to learn and grow with them.  Two things will never change, though – our need to view each family as a unique system, and our responsibility to bring our utmost respect into homes so we can build relationships and be a true team.  As John Ellis wrote some time ago, All Families Means All Families, so what does that look like to you?

To get more information here in Mecklenburg County, you can reach out to Heather Vandall-Henson, MSW at heather.vandall@mecklenburgcountync.gov, and Charlotte Transgender Healthcare Group provides local resources as well.  On a more national level, PFLAG has a chapter in every state, and their site has a wide variety of resources and information available.  AnneLouise also noted that children are learning very young these days that families come in all shapes and sizes.  There are so many wonderful books to help drive this point home for parents to read to their children, such as One, Two, Family, an illustrated picture book for kids about single mother family, and We Belong Together, a book about adoption and families.

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2 Responses to Rules to Engagement: Relationships Built on Respect and Relevance

  1. John October 30, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    Way to go CDSA staff !!! What a great accomplishment to recognize the relevance of this conversation and the courage it took to have it. Your work and personal lives will no doubt be affected by your willingness to be accepting and open minded. The applications to your work are countless and congratulations to recognizing so and doing something about it.

    • EI Excellence October 31, 2015 at 11:17 am #

      Thanks, John – it was a fantastic moment in my eyes, and it was very important to me that this be done the right way! 🙂 As AnneLouise said, there are more similarities than differences when it comes to engaging families, and every single one of them has so much to teach us! You set a great example for us when it comes to courage….

      – Julie

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